“The White Man’s Flag”

I have referenced John Coski’s book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, more than once over the past two weeks. It is by far the most comprehensive history of the Confederate flag and its place in Civil War memory. For those of you who wish to dig a bit deeper you may want to check out Robert Bonner’s, Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South [Princeton University Press, 2002]. It’s a much shorter book than Coski’s but it it does explore issues such as Confederate nationalism and religion in more detail.

As I was re-reading sections of the book I came across this passage about the Confederacy’s second national flag or Stainless Banner.

The decision to make more than half of the new national flag entirely white returned some Confederates to the question of race. The Savannah Morning News argued that the preponderance of white would make clear to the world that “we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” It even predicted that the new banner would be “hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.” Such expectations proved premature. “Purity” did become the primary association of this banner’s whiteness, and at a time when the Union turned to a war of emancipation, this resonant color could not help but conjure up something of the fears about “amalgamation” that were a part of American culture in both North and South. Yet the sort of overt reference to slavery and race that the Savannah editor expected did not become a major theme in the published record of commentary and verse. The opposition that most Confederates took to African American freedom hardly needed overt expression. Yet the tendency to skirt this theme in patriotic poetry recalled the earlier caution of risking international isolation and the alienation of southern nonslaveholders. (pp. 115-16)

In a recent Disunion essay Coski also takes note of commentary linking the new flag with the explicit goal of establishing a slaveholding republic.

A handful of contemporaries linked the new flag design to the “peculiar institution” that was at the heart of the South’s economy, social system and polity: slavery. Bagby characterized the flag motif as the “Southern Cross” – the constellation, not a religious symbol – and hailed it for pointing “the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave” southward to “the banks of the Amazon,” a reference to the desire among many Southerners to expand Confederate territory into Latin America.

With the Southern Cross prominently displayed, the Stainless Banner linked the Confederate nation with Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, which by the middle of the war had come to dominate popular perceptions of the war and represented their best opportunity for independence.

Next week the South Carolina state legislature will debate the removal of the Confederate battle flag that continues to fly on the state house grounds. While it looks like there are sufficient votes for its removal we are likely to be treated to the old refrain that attempts to thread the needle between heritage and hate.

Whether we like it or not Confederates openly celebrated the cause of establishing a slaveholding republic and the defense of white supremacy. They embraced it as the foundation of their new nation and as an improvement on the nation from which they left behind. It constituted their understanding of Confederate Exceptionalism.

At some point we all need to face this history and accept that it was always “a white man’s flag.”

[Link to banner image at Library of Congress]

About Kevin Levin

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7 comments add yours

  1. “Yet the sort of overt reference to slavery and race that the Savannah editor expected did not become a major theme in the published record of commentary and verse.”

    So Bonner is saying that despite the Savannah editor’s reference to “the white man’s flag,” he had trouble locating explicit restatements of that sentiment. Here lies a complex interpretive problem. For some folks, that lack of explicit language may suggest that these Confederates did not actually link the flag with racial hierarchy. That’s easy, and incorrect. But I think it means something for others (count myself among them) who do link the Confederate cause with the racial agenda. These folks explained themselves with so much more sophistication than we explain them in our public conversations. They didn’t walk around citing the Cornerstone speech all the time (as we do) and leave it at that. They elaborated a worldview that–rooted in racial hierarchy–built a much larger national vision of economics, society, political theory, and faith (and which I think is all the more frightening for it’s dependence on racial assumptions.)

    Bonner knows this. “The opposition that most Confederates took to African American freedom hardly needed overt expression.”

    Historians are in the peculiar position of needing to obliterate nuance, diversity, subtlety, change, etc. in our necessary efforts to interpret the Confederate nation as a slavery-perpetuating cause, while respecting the disciplinary need to consider complexity, change, and contingency when understanding and explaining the past.

  2. As a former combat veteran I will say that flags carry a remarkable resonance that few civilians can comprehend. I personally served under the banner of six different regiments – four that can trace their history back to the Civil War and two that actually faced each other in battle. I know the shape, symbolism, and character of each color. I know which colors bear what campaign streamers. I can note that regiments that fought for the Union carry campaign streamers with blue over grey, while regiments that fought for the Confederacy carry campaign streamers with grey over blue.

    I can also note that each of the four regiments that once fought against one another carry streamers of shared conflict. Regiments that faced each other outside Petersburg VA later spilled the same blood in places like Chateau Thierry, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Paktika, and Baghdad. I have had black First Sergeants and even a black battalion commander in regiments that once carried the Confederate Flag into battle. I have worked with a Japanese-American infantry company commander in a regiment that carried the US flag from Manassas in 1861 to Cebu Island, Philippines in 1945.

    In the military we call it duty, but civilians might look at it as reconciliation.

    I am opposed to the way many southern states are using the Confederate flag because they are the one’s dishonoring the memories of common soldiers. South carolina put a regimental standard on top of a state house of government as a racial slap against anti-segregation rules over 100 years after the real war was over and a string of southern leaders told their men to put the old flag away. The issue is simple, because of the racist acts of the 1960’s that flag needs to come down. It is the wrong flag in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    On the other hand I am opposed to any “cleansing” of our national history for the sake of making a small few feel comfortable. Monuments to Confederate dead must stay. Vandalizing a Confederate monument in Leesburg VA is no different than vandalizing the grave markers of the British dead along Battle Road in Lexington and Concord Massachusetts. It took a brutal and unforgiving civil conflict to rid this nation of slavery. It took the calm hand of reconciliation to patch it back together. Too many historians are looking to their craft to make political hay during this time of turmoil. They are hiding behind the guise of “accuracy” to bludgeon others they see as going against contemporary tides. This too must stop.

    Take the flags down. You can haul them out now and then to mark, accurately, where proud regiments once stood. You can, as a citizen, show it where you wish – every regiment I ever served with fought for exactly that from Lexington to Baghdad. But more importantly, stop lying about the very flag that so many elected to fight and die for. If you desire to honor southern dead put the symbol where it belongs, in history.

    • I have never served in the military so I find your remarks very interesting..thank you for posting. I agree…put the flags away in the museums so they can be seen in context, bring them out for specific occasions, and stop the defacing of monuments.

  3. This is the full Southern Cross quote mentioned in Coski’s essay:

    The “Southern Cross” holds its place steadily in the Southern heart. It was in every mouth long before the war began; it remains in spite of all arguments against it. These arguments are ridiculous. First, we don’t see the Southern Cross in the heavens. Indeed! Do the British see the lion and the unicorn on the land or in the sea? Do the Austrians behold the double headed eagle anywhere in nature or out of it? What has seeing got to do with it? The truth is, we shall see the Southern Cross ere the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave is accomplished. That destiny does not stop short of the banks of the Amazon. The world of wonders in the animal and vegetable kingdom, of riches incalculable in the vast domain, watered by that gigantic stream, is the natural heritage of the Southron and his domestic slave. They alone can achieve its conquest and lay its untold wealth a tribute at the feet of commerce, the Queen consort of King Cotton.

    — George Bagby, “Editor’s Table,” Southern Literary Messenger, January 1862, 68.

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